Saturday, 4 October 2008

heaven is a place

(something I wrote some years ago; I was reminded of it the other evening when we were out admiring the conkers...)

So the annual blitz on the conker trees is under way. Broken branches lie among the discarded husks all across the Downs, and Miserable Loony, who piles up dead branches for inscrutable reasons of his own, is looking more miserable than ever. It calls to mind the old saying, "A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree; the more you beat 'em, the better they be." This is the sort of thing trotted out by blokes with beards, over their tankards (always tankards) of real ale, who don't actually have women, but, hey. These men are probably also the only people left in Merrie England who actually play conkers these days. And experiment with vinegar and baking the in the oven to make them tougher.

So what does motivate these people who trog along with their Waitrose bags, the children stuffing them full of these inedible nuts, while Father imperils their young brains with ill-aimed hurlings of sticks, in attempts to dislodge more? -I think the idea of playing a game with them is just a front. We are impelled to do it, for the love of the thing. The beauty of conkers is more precious than that of pearls, because it is so transient. Take them home, and in a few days the marbled sheen has faded, the skin has begun to wrinkle, and that's that for another year. You can get strawberries all year round, if that sort of thing appeals to you; but conkers? -blink and you've missed them. I stood with my small daughter under one tree that was at the peak of fruitfulness, and the things were raining down around us. "It's heavened with conkers," she said. That was it. The nail had been hit, right on the head.

One autumn I was in Marseilles. The boulevards were lined with conker trees, and the gutters brimmed with conkers. They were entirely disregarded by the locals. My companions and I attracted some funny looks as we jubilantly stuffed our pockets. The French, you see. No poetry in their souls.

What of the squirrels, though? I see that they have taken to dashing around nibbling a bit off as many conkers as possible, thus rendering them useless to the discriminating gatherer. Presumably they will go around later, gathering them up and burying them for the winter. This is the sort of initiative that has got Grey Squirrels where they are today; all over the country. I used to shoot the damned things as vermin when I lived in Wales, but now I have surrendered to the inevitable.

And, when my daughter's conker collection has been laid aside and forgotten, I sneak them out in the dead of winter and scatter them for the squirrels. It's a sort of peace offering. And squirrels are useless at finding their own stashes.